Fifteen years ago, Gnarly athlete Lael Wilcox had a lightbulb moment while riding her bike. She was riding from Tacoma, Washington to Seattle to visit her sister, some 40-something miles away. Before this ride, Lael’s typical route was the four miles back and forth to work. But as she was riding to Seattle, Lael questioned why not go further? “All of a sudden I just kind of clicked and I thought that’d be such a cool way to see my country,” Lael said. “I could carry what I need along the way, probably ride about 50 miles a day, and sleep in different places. I’d love to do that.”
Lael has now seen huge portions of her country by bike. She’s also ridden all of the major roads in her home state of Alaska, she’s biked through Kyrgyzstan, and she’s shattered countless cycling race records. She’s ridden over 150,000 miles in almost 50 countries. Lael’s ride to visit her sister was a catalyst to her career as an ultra-distance adventure cyclist. With every race she wins and every bikepacking adventure she undertakes, her accomplishments become more awe-inspiring. And in true fashion to Lael’s dedication, she’s helping others realize the beauty of taking in our surroundings on a bike. Much more than a form of exercise, for Lael, riding is a way to learn, grow, and explore.
Lael’s first long distance race was in Israel. She showed up wearing tennis shoes and a cotton shirt for the self-supported 850-mile race. Surrounded by serious cyclists with fancy gear, Lael assumes she must have looked like a joke to her serious competitors. As the sun set on day one, Lael was the race leader, 25 miles in front of the guy in second place. “I just kept riding until three in the morning,” Lael said. “Then I just slept on the side of the road for three hours and got up and kept going. I was so excited. I kept thinking, ‘This is so much fun.’”
Waking with aches and pains but unrelenting determination, Lael rode on. “I was sore, but I guess that’s when I realized this was just something I could do.”
After she left Israel and flew home to Anchorage, she bought a nicer bike and took off on a 2,100-mile route for her first solo bikepacking adventure. Her destination was Banff in Alberta, Canada, the starting line for the Tour Divide race. The race itself is 2,745 miles, finishing on the New Mexico and Mexico border.
“I just thought, ‘What a way to see that place!’ I had never been through Canada,” Lael said. “Coming from Alaska, it was my chance to make that connection to the rest of the country.”
Despite a nagging bronchial infection, (she rode herself to urgent care at one point) Lael destroyed the previous women’s record of the Tour Divide race, finishing in 17 days, 1 hour and 51 minutes, over two days faster than the previous women’s record.
This is Lael. What some of us would consider absolutely inconceivable, Lael sees as a challenge to push herself. If it doesn’t work out, she says there’s always a Plan B. And if everything crumbles and fails, at least you get to see some cool stuff along the way.
Lael was on a bikepacking trip in Mexico with a friend when the two started comparing stories about how they both got into cycling in their 20s. Wondering how different their lives would look if they had formed a love for cycling in their early teen years, the two started Anchorage GRIT, aka “Girls Riding into Tomorrow.” The middle school bike mentorship program takes girls through a six-week program, training for the finale of a three-day bikepacking ride from Anchorage to the end of Eklutna Lake, a 65 mile ride.
Anchorage GRIT gives girls the opportunity to take on a large, independent challenge, proving to themselves they’re incredibly capable human beings. Lael says this experience is important during middle-school to serve as confidence and fuel as the girls head into some years that can be tough to navigate. “Kids are capable of improving quickly,” Lael said. “They’re not afraid to just do it.”
GRIT is also a way of showing the girls that not all activities need to be competitive. “A lot of sports are driven by competition and I don’t think that works for all kids,” Lael said. “If they’re not good at it then they just stopped doing it; they’re just not active. But you don’t have to be the fastest or the best to have fun on a bike.”
Lael embodies this notion herself. Not every ride needs to be for time or have a destination. For Lael, a lot of her rides are quite literally “about the journey.” For example, in 2019, she signed up for the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, without even knowing the native language or currency.
Her initial lack of knowledge about the country led her to arrive with enough time to get to know the area, the people, and how they live. “That’s my favorite part of the sport; learning and seeing how other people live and figuring out what’s different and what feels better,” Lael said. “The locals you meet there, they’re so excited about what you’re doing that maybe they’ll consider doing it too one day.”
Photos by Rugile Kaladyte
On deck for Lael is an attempt to beat the “Oregon Outback” FKT of 27 hours. “That record is set by a guy but I think I could get it,” Lael said. July will take her back to Alaska to ride the Alaskan Pipeline route from Deadhorse to Valdez. “That’s more of a personal challenge,” Lael said. “I’ve ridden all of the roads in Alaska and I really love that stretch. I’ll just see how fast I can ride it”
Lael’s relentless quest for adventure fuels us at Gnarly. Her kind spirit and willingness to help others experience even a tiny piece of how much joy cycling has brought to her life is inspiring. We’d gladly hop on a bike next to Lael anyday, and are stoked she’s now on Gnarly’s team.
Check out what Lael’s up to on her Instagram.